News round-up

Read our news in brief

Scientists scaling new heights in search for microplastics

Scientists from the University have identified the highest recorded microplastics ever found on Earth – on Mount Everest. Substantial quantities of polyester, acrylic, nylon and polypropylene were found in samples taken from heights of up to 8,440 metres, suggesting that clothing and climbing and camping gear could be contributing to plastic pollution. The samples were collected in 2019, as part of National Geographic and Rolex’s Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition, and then analysed in specialist facilities in Plymouth.

“Microplastics are generated by a range of sources and many aspects of our daily lives can lead to microplastics entering the environment,” said Research Fellow and National Geographic Explorer Dr Imogen Napper, the lead author of the study published in One Earth. “Over the past few years, we have found microplastics in samples collected all over the planet – from the Arctic to our rivers and the deep seas. With that in mind, finding microplastics near the summit of Mount Everest is timely reminder that we need to do more to protect our environment.”

The paper, produced with colleagues from the UK, USA and Nepal, drew a huge amount of international media coverage and capped a memorable 2020 for the University’s International Marine Litter Research Unit. This included the publication of major studies on laundry devices, lint and tyre particles; the award of more than £1million of new research funding; and landmark moments such as the award of the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education, and a Fellowship of the Royal Society for Professor Richard Thompson OBE FRS.

Responding to coronavirus

The coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact upon all levels of society – but it has also brought out the best in many people. That has certainly been the case at the University, where staff and students have displayed compassion and can-do spirit to support community projects and the health sector. Many students from the Faculty of Health, for example, have volunteered on the frontline of the NHS, and the 2020 cohort of doctors graduated early to launch their careers at the time of need. 

Engineers and technicians answered the call for personal protective equipment for the NHS, such as through a city-wide consortium to manufacture components, including 3D printed face shields. They used 3D printing equipment housed in the new Digital Fabrication Laboratory and the Plymouth Electron Microscopy Centre, as well as labs within Smeaton Building and at Plymouth Science. And in a separate project, Dr Antony Robotham, Associate Professor in Mechanical Engineering, worked with local company Prestige Packaging, to develop and create 20,000 shields for procurement. He subsequently received the President’s Special Award for Pandemic Service by the Royal Academy of Engineering.

 

D-Day discovery by wartime history expert

New research has revealed that the course of history was close to being altered during a D-Day landing rehearsal that took a devastating turn. Exercise Tiger, which was staged in Lyme Bay in late April 1944, was intended to be a training exercise but ended in tragedy when the convoy of United States ships was attacked by heavily armed German S-boats, resulting in the loss of 749 American servicemen. This much has been known since the 1980s – but after attending a service of commemoration, Dr Harry Bennett, Associate Professor of History, and an expert maritime and military operations during World War Two, was contacted by the family of a serviceman and provided with transcripts of official records that shed new light on the incident. It revealed how a second convoy of Allied tank landing ships encountered the German S-boats, but were not attacked because they were preoccupied by British destroyers chasing them. Had they too been fired upon, it could have had a catastrophic impact on D-Day plans, both in terms of loss of lives, damage to morale and a lack of the highly specialised LSTs that were vital to the operation.

“The nine S-Boats at sea that night carried between them 36 torpedoes,” said Dr Bennett. “Perhaps only five found their targets as a result of good fortune and professionalism on the part of the United States and Royal Navies. The potential for the tragedy of Exercise Tiger that night to have assumed even bigger proportions is obvious.”

 

Funding awarded to create national test facility for renewable technology

The University has been awarded more than £1million to create a unique facility for testing new innovations in floating offshore wind technology within the Marine Building on campus. Supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the project will upgrade the COAST (Coastal, Ocean and Sediment Transport) laboratory, adding wind generation to the Ocean Basin’s current and wave technology. The combination of the three will create a first-of-its-kind facility in the UK and will enable researchers to improve their understanding of how future technology advances could be impacted by atmospheric conditions. It will also provide a low-risk environment in which researchers from academia and industry can test new and novel concepts.

Dr Martyn Hann, Lecturer in Coastal Engineering and Academic Lead within the COAST Laboratory, is Principal Investigator on the project. He said: 

“Floating offshore wind is an exciting sector that is likely to grow significantly over the next few years. But before any device goes into the sea, physical modelling is critical, especially during the early stages of developing a new concept. Testing model devices at scale in the controlled environment of a laboratory has many advantages and this investment gives us the capability to be at the forefront of such advances.”